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Essex County Board of Supervisors voted to raise the minimum age to purchase tobacco products to 21. The law will be enforced starting Jan. 1.

On paper, it’s already law in Essex County that you have to be 21 to buy tobacco products, but in practice, it won’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2019.

With a close vote Sept. 4, the county Board of Supervisors raised the minimum age from 18. Essex became the 15th of New York’s 61 counties to do so, and the first in the North Country. The cities of New York and Albany have also raised the age, as have several other states.

Technically, Essex County officials say their new law takes effect as soon as it’s filed with New York’s Department of State. County Attorney Daniel Manning said he expects that has already happened, although the county had not yet received acknowledgement of it as of Thursday afternoon.

But the new law won’t be enforced until the first day of the new year, according to the county’s public health director, Linda Beers. Between now and then, she said, the county Health Department plans to reach out to stores that sell tobacco products, inform them of the new age, give them signs and information packets about it and set up some informational meetings.

Beers’ department is responsible for making sure vendors comply with the new law, and she said she doesn’t expect problems.

“Our local vendors have overwhelmingly demonstrated their commitment to limiting the sale of tobacco to minors under the age 18,” she said in a press release. “We are confident that they will continue to do so for those under the age of 21.”

She also said she doesn’t expect any confusion or issues in a place such as Saranac Lake, where the village is half in Essex County, half in Franklin County. She figured each store would follow the rules for whichever county it’s in.

Meanwhile, she hopes that problem is solved by neighboring counties raising the age as well.

Essex County’s decision is the result of roughly a year of effort by the Adirondack Health Initiative, a nonprofit group representing a range of health care interests in nine counties. AHI got a state Health Department grant to develop what’s called a Population Health Improvement Program for six of those counties and decided to pursue two priorities: figuring out ways to reduce obesity, and reducing tobacco use by joining the national Tobacco 21 campaign — raising the age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21. Essex County is AHI’s first victory in this effort, and now it’s trying to get Clinton, Franklin, Hamilton, Warren and Washington counties to follow.

The main argument for raising the age is to make it harder for young people to become addicted to something that’s bad for their health.

“Three of the four leading causes of premature death in Essex County are cancer, heart disease, and chronic lower respiratory disease — all closely linked to smoking,” Beers said in the release. “We have to proactively prevent the tobacco industry from addicting another generation of smokers because 96 percent of smokers begin smoking before the age of 21.”

The national nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids says people are three times less likely to start smoking regularly if they haven’t smoked by the age of 18 and 20 times less likely if they wait until 21. The county Health Department adds that raising the age will take most legal tobacco purchasers out of high schoolers’ social circles.

For the most part, the nine supervisors who voted against raising the age agreed smoking should be reduced but didn’t think this was a good way to go about it. Some said it would be better to raise the age to consume tobacco products rather than to buy them, and some said the age should be raised statewide rather than county by county.

The law is not just for cigarettes, cigars, loose tobacco and chewing tobacco; it also applies to electronic nicotine delivery systems, rolling papers and other smoking paraphernalia, hookah smoking products, nicotine water, liquid nicotine, snuff, gutka, bidi cigarettes and herbal cigarettes.

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